Portland Thorns, North Carolina Courage, Houston Dash reverse course for better

The NWSL always loves to keep the audience on its toes, with last week’s batch of games proving that early season form might not define each team — for better or for worse.

The reversal of fortunes has been good news for the Portland Thorns, who are on a five-match winning streak after moving Mike Norris from his role as head coach to one as the technical director, rising from last place to fourth place in the process. There are also signs of life for the Houston Dash, who notched only their second win of the season on Sunday, and NJ/NY Gotham FC, who have scored in four consecutive games after scoring just twice in their first four games. On the flip side, a North Carolina Courage team that looked very convincing at the start of the season has now won just one of the last five, the most recent of which was a 1-0 loss to the Kansas City Current on Sunday.

As the NWSL inches closer to the midway point of the season, here’s a look at the weekend that was — and the body of work some teams are already building.

Resurgent Thorns

What a difference a coaching change makes for the Thorns, who look like a more familiar version of themselves since Rob Gale took the reins a month ago. The team’s attacking operation has been the standout feature of their course correction, scoring 15 goals in their last five games, a stretch that includes Saturday’s 4-0 win over the Seattle Reign. Sophia Smith has raced up the league’s goalscoring charts along the way and now has eight goals this season, three more than Angel City’s Claire Emslie in second.

It’s a big improvement from the six goals they posted in their first four games and part of a more intentional offensive operation on the Thorns’ part. They are taking less shots per game (12.2 since the coaching change, 19.25 beforehand) and have created fewer chances (9.2 now, 15.75 previously) but now average 1.82 expected goals, more than the 1.43 under Norris. The Thorns are also putting way more shots on frame now — 54.1% of their shots are on target, compared to 33.8% beforehand — all with a little less possession. The team averaged 52.1% of the ball under Norris but since Gale came in, they are at 48.3%.

Arguably, there’s a more notable change for the Thorns in recent weeks — their defensive stability. The Thorns were the NWSL’s high-scoring team last year and are running with much of the same personnel up top this year, suggesting that things would turn in their favor in attack at some point. The 2022 NWSL champions, though, were in the bottom three for goals against in 2023 and started 2024 on a porous note with 10 goals conceded in four games. That number is down to just four in their last five, and Gale has rotated through his options in the back line at a similar rate to Norris earlier this season. The reversal in the defensive performance serves as a vote of confidence in the Thorns’ recruitment over the offseason, when they signed the likes of outside backs Marie Muller and Nicole Payne and are running with goalkeeper Shelby Hogan while Bella Bixby is on maternity leave.

Courage’s downward turn

For the few weeks of the season, the Courage seemed like the real deal and Sunday’s match against the Current was poised to be a first look at a top-of-the-table clash in the NWSL. Though the scoreline was tight in their 1-0 loss, it was one of very few metrics in which the margins were tight.

The possession-preferring Courage held the edge in that category with 54.5% of the ball but were outshot 21-7and lost the expected goals battle 2.89 to 0.33. Though the Courage are not a high-scoring squad and are in the middle of the pack with 12 goals this season, the outing against the Current was easily their worst attacking game of the season. It’s a troubling trend because that might be the primary way for Sean Nahas’ team to bail themselves out of their most troublesome problem — their opponents outshoot them more often than not.

The Courage have been outshot in six of their nine games this season, which was not such a worry in their first four matches of the season. While they conceded 38 shots — the fourth least in the NWSl at the time — they limited the opponents to just nine shots on goal, the best defensive showing in the league after four games, and let in just three goals. They have slipped considerably since, ranking within the bottom five in those categories, considering 70 shots and 27 shots on target and letting in eight goals. It forces questions of the sustainability of that strategy, especially for a team that likes to possess the ball, especially in a league where the attacking talent is only getting better.

Nielsen’s emotional win

The weekend’s action closed out with a dramatic finish in Los Angeles, where the Houston Dash picked up their second win of the season with a 1-0 win over Angel City. The hosts were arguably the better side with nearly 60% of the ball and 13 shots to the Dash’s eight, but the visitors limited Angel City to just 0.94 expected goals, outdoing them in that category with 1.14.

Paige Nielsen scored in the 98th minute to clinch the three points, delivering a win for a team in sore need of one during a season that has already featured forgettable moments, chief among them the Maria Sanchez trade saga. It’s also already been an emotional season for Nielsen, who was surprisingly traded by Angel City to the Dash a month ago.

“My wife, I think she yelled at me every day,” Nielsen said in the post-match press conference. “I think I cried every day. I mean, she did choose to marry me and I don’t think she understood what it meant in case I got traded but she can work remote so we’re figuring things out. Leaving was very hard. I think I cried for two days straight just because we started to build a life in LA and it felt like home but we’re also very excited for what Houston can bring us. If that means an affordable house or less traffic — I want to literally bang my head against the car with the traffic in LA but there’s so many positives that can come out of this. I just really needed to process all my feelings because it was very sad.”

Nielsen’s comments mark the latest chapter in the brewing discontent over trades around the league, a concept familiar to American sports but one that feels at odds with soccer’s structure. It could be a topic of conversation for the NWSL’s next collective bargaining agreement, which will start in 2027, but NWSL Players Association executive director Meghann Burke has already advocated to get rid of trades without player consent.

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